The current study is a randomized clinical trial evaluating the efficacy of Focused Playtime Intervention (FPI) in a sample of 70 children with Autism Spectrum Disorder. This parent-mediated intervention has previously been shown to significantly increase responsive parental communication (Siller et al. in J Autism Dev Disord 43:540–555, 2013a). The current analyses focus on children’s attachment related outcomes. Results revealed that children who were randomly assigned to FPI showed bigger increases in attachment-related behaviors, compared to children assigned to the control condition. Significant treatment effects of FPI were found for both an observational measure of attachment-related behaviors elicited during a brief separation-reunion episode and a questionnaire measure evaluating parental perceptions of child attachment. The theoretical and clinical implications of these findings are discussed.
Autism; Randomized clinical trial; Parent child communication; Attachment; Intervention
The present study explores behavioral and sleep outcomes in preschool age siblings of children with autism spectrum disorders (ASD). This study focuses on behavior problems that are common in children with ASD, such as emotional reactivity, anxiety, inattention, aggression, and sleep problems. Infant siblings were recruited from families with at least one older child with ASD (high-risk group, n = 104) or families with no history of ASD (low-risk group, n = 76). As part of a longitudinal prospective study, children completed the Mullen Scales of Early Learning and the Autism Diagnostic Observation Schedule, and parents completed the Child Behavior Checklist (CBCL) and the Social Communication Questionnaire at 36 months of age. This study focuses on developmental concerns outside of ASD; therefore, only siblings who did not develop an ASD were included in analyses. Negative binomial regression analyses revealed that children in the high-risk group were more likely to have elevated behavior problems on the CBCL Anxious/Depressed and Aggression subscales. To explore sleep problems as a correlate of these behavior problems, a second series of models was specified. For both groups of children, sleep problems were associated with elevated behavior problems in each of the areas assessed (reactivity, anxiety, somatic complaints, withdrawal, attention, and aggression). These findings support close monitoring of children with a family history of ASD for both behavioral and sleep issues.
autism; siblings; behavior problems; sleep
Longitudinal research has demonstrated that responsive parental behaviors reliably predict subsequent language gains in children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). To investigate the underlying causal mechanisms, we conducted a randomized clinical trial of an experimental intervention (Focused Playtime Intervention, FPI) that aims to enhance responsive parental communication (N = 70). Results showed a significant treatment effect of FPI on responsive parental behaviors. Findings also revealed a conditional effect of FPI on children’s expressive language outcomes at 12-month follow up, suggesting that children with baseline language skills below 12 months (N = 24) are most likely to benefit from FPI. Parents of children with more advanced language skills may require intervention strategies that go beyond FPI’s focus on responsive communication.
autism; randomized clinical trial; parent child communication; language; intervention
First-degree relatives of persons with an autism spectrum disorder (ASD) are at increased risk for ASD-related characteristics. As little is known about the early expression of these characteristics, this study characterizes the non-ASD outcomes of 3-year-old high-risk (HR) siblings of children with ASD.
Two groups of children without ASD participated: 507 HR siblings and 324 low-risk (LR) control subjects (no known relatives with ASD). Children were enrolled at a mean age of 8 months, and outcomes were assessed at 3 years. Outcome measures were Autism Diagnostic Observation Schedule (ADOS) calibrated severity scores, and Mullen Verbal and Non-Verbal Developmental Quotients (DQ).
At 3 years, HR siblings without an ASD outcome exhibited higher mean ADOS severity scores and lower verbal and non-verbal DQs than LR controls. HR siblings were over-represented (21% HR versus 7% LR) in latent classes characterized by elevated ADOS severity and/or low to low-average DQs. The remaining HR siblings without ASD outcomes (79%) belonged to classes in which they were not differentially represented with respect to LR siblings.
Having removed a previously identified 18.7% of HR siblings with ASD outcomes from all analyses, HR siblings nevertheless exhibited higher mean levels of ASD severity and lower levels of developmental functioning than LR children. However, the latent class membership of four-fifths of the HR siblings was not significantly different from that of LR control subjects. One-fifth of HR siblings belonged to classes characterized by higher ASD severity and/or lower levels of developmental functioning. This empirically derived characterization of an early-emerging pattern of difficulties in a minority of 3-year-old HR siblings suggests the importance of developmental surveillance and early intervention for these children.
ASD; high-risk siblings; outcome; broad autism phenotype
To examine mirror neuron abnormalities in autism, high-functioning children with autism and matched controls underwent fMRI while imitating and observing emotional expressions. Although both groups performed the tasks equally well, children with autism showed no mirror neuron activity in the inferior frontal gyrus (pars opercularis). Notably, activity in this area was inversely related to symptom severity in the social domain, suggesting that a dysfunctional ‘mirror neuron system’ may underlie the social deficits observed in autism.
Understanding a speaker’s communicative intent in everyday interactions is likely to draw on cues such as facial expression and tone of voice. Prior research has shown that individuals with autism spectrum disorders (ASD) show reduced activity in brain regions that respond selectively to the face and voice. However, there is also evidence that activity in key regions can be increased if task demands allow for explicit processing of emotion.
To examine the neural circuitry underlying impairments in interpreting communicative intentions in ASD using irony comprehension as a test case, and to determine whether explicit instructions to attend to facial expression and tone of voice will elicit more normative patterns of brain activity.
Design, Setting, and Participants
Eighteen boys with ASD (aged 7–17 years, full-scale IQ >70) and 18 typically developing (TD) boys underwent functional magnetic resonance imaging at the Ahmanson-Lovelace Brain Mapping Center, University of California, Los Angeles.
Main Outcome Measures
Blood oxygenation level– dependent brain activity during the presentation of short scenarios involving irony. Behavioral performance (accuracy and response time) was also recorded.
Reduced activity in the medial prefrontal cortex and right superior temporal gyrus was observed in children with ASD relative to TD children during the perception of potentially ironic vs control scenarios. Importantly, a significant group X condition interaction in the medial prefrontal cortex showed that activity was modulated by explicit instructions to attend to facial expression and tone of voice only in the ASD group. Finally, medial prefrontal cortex activity was inversely related to symptom severity in children with ASD such that children with greater social impairment showed less activity in this region.
Explicit instructions to attend to facial expression and tone of voice can elicit increased activity in the medial prefrontal cortex, part of a network important for understanding the intentions of others, in children with ASD. These findings suggest a strategy for future intervention research.
While individuals with autism spectrum disorders (ASD) are typically impaired in interpreting the communicative intent of others, little is known about the neural bases of higher-level pragmatic impairments. Here, we used functional MRI (fMRI) to examine the neural circuitry underlying deficits in understanding irony in high-functioning children with ASD. Participants listened to short scenarios and decided whether the speaker was sincere or ironic. Three types of scenarios were used in which we varied the information available to guide this decision. Scenarios included (i) both knowledge of the event outcome and strong prosodic cues (sincere or sarcastic intonation), (ii) prosodic cues only or (iii) knowledge of the event outcome only. Although children with ASD performed well above chance, they were less accurate than typically developing (TD) children at interpreting the communicative intent behind a potentially ironic remark, particularly with regard to taking advantage of available contextual information. In contrast to prior research showing hypoactivation of regions involved in understanding the mental states of others, children with ASD showed significantly greater activity than TD children in the right inferior frontal gyrus (IFG) as well as in bilateral temporal regions. Increased activity in the ASD group fell within the network recruited in the TD group and may reflect more effortful processing needed to interpret the intended meaning of an utterance. These results confirm that children with ASD have difficulty interpreting the communicative intent of others and suggest that these individuals can recruit regions activated as part of the normative neural circuitry when task demands require explicit attention to socially relevant cues.
autism; brain development; fMRI; language pragmatics; social cognition
The development of imitation during the second year of life plays an important role in domains of socio-cognitive development such as language and social learning. Deficits in imitation ability in persons with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) have also been repeatedly documented from toddlerhood into adulthood, raising the possibility that early disruptions in imitation contribute to the onset of ASD and the deficits in language and social interaction that define the disorder. This study prospectively examined the development of imitation between 12 and 24 months of age in 154 infants at familial risk for ASD and 78 typically developing infants who were all later assessed at 36 months for ASD or other developmental delays. The study established a developmental measure of imitation ability, and examined group differences over time, using an analytic Rasch measurement model. Results revealed a unidimensional latent construct of imitation and verified a reliable sequence of imitation skills that was invariant over time for all outcome groups. Results also showed that all groups displayed similar significant linear increases in imitation ability between 12 and 24 months and that these increases were related to individual growth in both expressive language and ratings of social engagement, but not fine motor development. The group of children who developed ASD by age 3 years exhibited delayed imitation development compared to the low-risk typical outcome group across all time-points, but were indistinguishable from other high-risk infants who showed other cognitive delays not related to ASD.
imitation; autism; Rasch analysis; early identification; HGLM
Infants’ responses to other people’s distress reflect efforts to make sense of affective information about another person and apply it to oneself. This study sought to determine whether 12-month olds’ responses to another person’s display of negative affect reflect characteristics that support social learning and predict social functioning and language skills at 36 months. Measures of infants’ responsiveness include congruent changes in affect and looking time to the person in distress. Attention to the examiner displaying positive affect, analyzed as a control condition, was not related to social functioning or language skills at 36 months. Neither attention nor affective response to the examiner’s distress at 12 months was related to social functioning at 36 months. However, longer time spent looking at the examiner feigning distress predicted higher language scores. Moreover, infants who demonstrated a congruent affective response to distress had higher receptive language scores at 36 months than children who did not respond affectively. Importantly, these relations were not mediated by maternal education, household income, or 12-month verbal skills. These findings are consistent with the notion that adaptation to changes in a social partner’s affective state supports an infants’ ability to glean useful information from interactions with more experienced social partners. Infants’ sensitivity to affective signals may thus be related to the ability to interpret other people’s behavior and to achieve interpersonal understanding through language.
Empathy; Infancy; Social Interaction; Language Development; Social Development
The purpose of this study was to identify differences in patterns of developmental abnormalities between the brains of individuals with autism of unknown etiology and those of individuals with duplications of chromosome 15q11.2-q13 [dup(15)] and autism, and to identify alterations that may contribute to seizures and sudden death in the latter. Brains of 9 subjects with dup(15), 10 with idiopathic autism, and 7 controls were examined. In the dup(15) cohort, 7 subjects (78%) had autism, 7 (78%) had seizures, and 6 (67%) had experienced sudden unexplained death. Subjects with dup(15) autism were microcephalic, with mean brain weights 300 g less (1,177 g) than those of subjects with idiopathic autism (1,477 g; p < 0.001). Heterotopias in the alveus, CA4, and dentate gyrus and dysplasia in the dentate gyrus were detected in 89% of dup(15) autism cases but in only 10% idiopathic autism cases (p < 0.001). By contrast, cerebral cortex dysplasia was detected in 50% of subjects with idiopathic autism and in no dup(15) autism cases (p < 0.04). The different spectrum and higher prevalence of developmental neuropathological findings in the dup(15) cohort than in cases with idiopathic autism may contribute to the high risk of early onset of seizures and sudden death.
Autism; Chromosome 15q11.2-q13 duplication; Developmental brain alterations; Seizures; Sudden unexpected death
We examined social attention and attention shifting during (a) a play interaction between 12-month olds and an examiner and (b) after the examiner pretended to hurt herself. We coded the target and duration of infants’ visual fixations and frequency of attention shifts. Siblings of children with autism and controls with no family history of autism were tested at 12 months and screened for ASD at 36 months. Groups did not differ on proportion of attention to social stimuli or attention shifting during the play condition. All groups demonstrated more social attention and attention shifting during the distress condition. Infants later diagnosed with ASD tended to continue looking at a toy during the distress condition despite the salience of social information.
Autism; Broader autism phenotype; Visual attention; Attention shifting; Early identification
The recurrence risk of autism spectrum disorders (ASD) is estimated to be between 3% and 10%, but previous research was limited by small sample sizes and biases related to ascertainment, reporting, and stoppage factors. This study used prospective methods to obtain an updated estimate of sibling recurrence risk for ASD.
A prospective longitudinal study of infants at risk for ASD was conducted by a multisite international network, the Baby Siblings Research Consortium. Infants (n = 664) with an older biological sibling with ASD were followed from early in life to 36 months, when they were classified as having or not having ASD. An ASD classification required surpassing the cutoff of the Autism Diagnostic Observation Schedule and receiving a clinical diagnosis from an expert clinician.
A total of 18.7% of the infants developed ASD. Infant gender and the presence of >1 older affected sibling were significant predictors of ASD outcome, and there was an almost threefold increase in risk for male subjects and an additional twofold increase in risk if there was >1 older affected sibling. The age of the infant at study enrollment, the gender and functioning level of the infant's older sibling, and other demographic factors did not predict ASD outcome.
The sibling recurrence rate of ASD is higher than suggested by previous estimates. The size of the current sample and prospective nature of data collection minimized many limitations of previous studies of sibling recurrence. Clinical implications, including genetic counseling, are discussed.
autism; recurrence; sibling risk
It has been shown that amyloid ß (Aβ), a product of proteolytic cleavage of the amyloid β precursor protein (APP), accumulates in neuronal cytoplasm in non-affected individuals in a cell type–specific amount.
In the present study, we found that the percentage of amyloid-positive neurons increases in subjects diagnosed with idiopathic autism and subjects diagnosed with duplication 15q11.2-q13 (dup15) and autism spectrum disorder (ASD). In spite of interindividual differences within each examined group, levels of intraneuronal Aβ load were significantly greater in the dup(15) autism group than in either the control or the idiopathic autism group in 11 of 12 examined regions (p<0.0001 for all comparisons; Kruskall-Wallis test). In eight regions, intraneuronal Aβ load differed significantly between idiopathic autism and control groups (p<0.0001). The intraneuronal Aβ was mainly N-terminally truncated. Increased intraneuronal accumulation of Aβ17–40/42 in children and adults suggests a life-long enhancement of APP processing with α-secretase in autistic subjects. Aβ accumulation in neuronal endosomes, autophagic vacuoles, Lamp1-positive lysosomes and lipofuscin, as revealed by confocal microscopy, indicates that products of enhanced α-secretase processing accumulate in organelles involved in proteolysis and storage of metabolic remnants. Diffuse plaques containing Aβ1–40/42 detected in three subjects with ASD, 39 to 52 years of age, suggest that there is an age-associated risk of alterations of APP processing with an intraneuronal accumulation of a short form of Aβ and an extracellular deposition of full-length Aβ in nonfibrillar plaques.
The higher prevalence of excessive Aβ accumulation in neurons in individuals with early onset of intractable seizures, and with a high risk of sudden unexpected death in epilepsy in autistic subjects with dup(15) compared to subjects with idiopathic ASD, supports the concept of mechanistic and functional links between autism, epilepsy and alterations of APP processing leading to neuronal and astrocytic Aβ accumulation and diffuse plaque formation.
Individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD) typically show impaired eye contact during social interactions. From a young age, they look less at faces than typically developing (TD) children and tend to avoid direct gaze. However, the reason for this behavior remains controversial; ASD children might avoid eye contact because they perceive the eyes as aversive or because they do not find social engagement through mutual gaze rewarding.
We monitored pupillary diameter as a measure of autonomic response in children with ASD (n = 20, mean age = 12.4) and TD controls (n = 18, mean age = 13.7) while they looked at faces displaying different emotions. Each face displayed happy, fearful, angry or neutral emotions with the gaze either directed to or averted from the subjects.
Overall, children with ASD and TD controls showed similar pupillary responses; however, they differed significantly in their sensitivity to gaze direction for happy faces. Specifically, pupillary diameter increased among TD children when viewing happy faces with direct gaze as compared to those with averted gaze, whereas children with ASD did not show such sensitivity to gaze direction. We found no group differences in fixation that could explain the differential pupillary responses. There was no effect of gaze direction on pupil diameter for negative affect or neutral faces among either the TD or ASD group.
We interpret the increased pupillary diameter to happy faces with direct gaze in TD children to reflect the intrinsic reward value of a smiling face looking directly at an individual. The lack of this effect in children with ASD is consistent with the hypothesis that individuals with ASD may have reduced sensitivity to the reward value of social stimuli.
Autism; Pupillary response; Reward processing
Language delay is a hallmark feature of autism spectrum disorders (ASD). The identification of word boundaries in continuous speech is a critical first step in language acquisition that can be accomplished via statistical learning and reliance on speech cues. Importantly, early word segmentation skills have been shown to predict later language development in typically developing (TD) children.
Here we investigated the neural correlates of online word segmentation in children with and without ASD with a well-established behavioral paradigm previously validated for functional magnetic resonance imaging. Eighteen high-functioning boys with ASD and 18 age- and IQ-matched TD boys underwent functional magnetic resonance imaging while listening to two artificial languages (containing statistical or statistical + prosodic cues to word boundaries) and a random speech stream.
Consistent with prior findings, in TD control subjects, activity in fronto-temporal-parietal networks decreased as the number of cues to word boundaries increased. The ASD children, however, did not show this facilitatory effect. Furthermore, statistical contrasts modeling changes in activity over time identified significant learning-related signal increases for both artificial languages in basal ganglia and left temporo-parietal cortex only in TD children. Finally, the level of communicative impairment in ASD children was inversely correlated with signal increases in these same regions during exposure to the artificial languages.
This is the first study to demonstrate significant abnormalities in the neural architecture subserving language-related learning in ASD children and to link the communicative impairments observed in this population to decreased sensitivity to the statistical and speech cues available in the language input.
Autism; implicit learning; language; neuroimaging; speech perception
Infants and preschoolers with ASD show impairment in their responses to other people's distress relative to children with other developmental delays and typically developing children. This deficit is expected to disrupt social interactions, social learning, and the formation of close relationships. Response to distress has not been evaluated previously in infants with ASD earlier than 18 months of age.
Participants were 103 infant siblings of children with autism and 55 low-risk controls. All children were screened for ASD at 36 months and 14 were diagnosed with ASD. Infants' responsiveness to distress was evaluated at 12, 18, 24, and 36 months. An examiner pretended to hit her finger with a toy mallet and infants' responses were video-recorded. Attention to the examiner and congruent changes in affect were coded on four-point Likert scales.
Cross-sectional and longitudinal analyses confirm that the ASD group paid less attention and demonstrated less change in affect in response to the examiner's distress relative to the high-risk and low-risk participants who were not subsequently diagnosed with ASD. Group differences remained when verbal skills and general social responsiveness were included in the analytic models.
Diagnostic groups differ on distress response from 12 to 36 months of age. Distress-response measures are predictive of later ASD diagnosis above and beyond verbal impairments. Distress response is a worthwhile target for early intervention programs.
autism; early identification; siblings; empathy; infancy
Abnormal eye contact is a core symptom of autism spectrum disorders (ASD), though little is understood of the neural bases of gaze processing in ASD. Competing hypotheses suggest that individuals with ASD avoid eye contact due to the anxiety-provoking nature of direct eye gaze or that eye-gaze cues hold less interest or significance to children with ASD. The current study examined the effects of gaze direction on neural processing of emotional faces in typically developing (TD) children and those with ASD. While undergoing functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), 16 high-functioning children and adolescents with ASD and 16 TD controls viewed a series of faces depicting emotional expressions with either direct or averted gaze. Children in both groups showed significant activity in visual-processing regions for both direct and averted gaze trials. However, there was a significant group by gaze interaction such that only TD children showed reliably greater activity in ventrolateral prefrontal cortex for direct versus averted gaze. The ASD group showed no difference between direct and averted gaze in response to faces conveying negative emotions. These results highlight the key role of eye gaze in signaling communicative intent and suggest altered processing of the emotional significance of direct gaze in children with ASD.
Autism; facial expression; functional magnetic resonance imaging; gaze; developmental neuroimaging
Longitudinal research into adult outcomes in autism remains limited. Unlike previous longitudinal examinations of adult outcome in autism, the twenty participants in this study were evaluated across multiple assessments between early childhood (M = 3.9 years) and adulthood (M = 26.6 years). In early childhood, responsiveness to joint attention (RJA), language, and intelligence were assessed. In adulthood, the parents of participants responded to interviews assessing the adaptive functioning, autistic symptomology and global functioning of their children. RJA and early childhood language predicted a composite measure of adult social functioning and independence. Early childhood language skills and intelligence predicted adult adaptive behaviors. RJA predicted adult non-verbal communication, social skills and symptoms. Adaptive behaviors changed with development, but symptoms of autism did not. Additional factors associated with adult outcomes are discussed.
Autism; Longitudinal; Outcome; Adulthood; Social functioning
To replicate the factor structure and predictive validity of revised Autism Diagnostic Observation Schedule algorithms in an independent dataset (N = 1,282).
Algorithm revisions were replicated using data from children ages 18 months to 16 years collected at 11 North American sites participating in the Collaborative Programs for Excellence in Autism and the Studies to Advance Autism Research and Treatment.
Sensitivities and specificities approximated or exceeded those of the old algorithms except for young children with phrase speech and a clinical diagnosis of pervasive developmental disorders not otherwise specified.
Revised algorithms increase comparability between modules and improve the predictive validity of the Autism Diagnostic Observation Schedule for autism cases compared to the original algorithms.
autism; pervasive developmental disorders not otherwise specified; Autism Diagnostic Observation Schedule; diagnosis
Functional neuroimaging studies of face processing deficits in autism have typically focused on visual processing regions, such as the fusiform face area (FFA), which have shown reduced activity in autism spectrum disorders (ASD), though inconsistently. We recently reported reduced activity in the inferior frontal region in ASD, implicating impaired mirror-neuron systems during face processing. In the present study, we used fMRI during a face processing task in which subjects had to match faces presented in the upright versus inverted position. Typically developing (TD) children showed a classic behavioral inversion effect, increased reaction time for inverted faces, while this effect was significantly reduced in ASD subjects. The fMRI data showed similar responses in the fusiform face area for ASD and TD children, with both groups demonstrating increased activation for inverted faces. However, the groups did differ in several brain regions implicated in social cognition, particularly prefrontal cortex and amygdala. These data suggest that the behavioral differences in processing upright versus inverted faces for TD children are related not to visual information processing but to the social significance of the stimuli. Our results are consistent with other recent studies implicating frontal and limbic dysfunction during face processing in autism.
Functional MRI; Autism; Asperger’s; Face processing; Face inversion; Development
Autism is currently viewed as a spectrum condition including strikingly different severity levels. IQ is consistently described as one of the primary aspects of the heterogeneity in autism. To investigate the possibility of more than one distinct subtype of autism based on IQ, both latent class analysis and taxometric methods were used to classify Mullen IQ scores in a sample of children with autism spectrum disorder (N=456). Evidence for multiple IQ-based subgroups was found using both methods. Groups differed in level of intellectual functioning and patterns of verbal versus nonverbal ability. Results support the notion of distinct subtypes of autism which differ in severity of intellectual ability, patterns of cognitive strengths and weaknesses, and severity of autism symptoms.
Autism spectrum disorders (ASDs) represent a group of childhood neurodevelopmental and neuropsychiatric disorders characterized by deficits in verbal communication, impairment of social interaction, and restricted and repetitive patterns of interests and behaviour. To identify common genetic risk factors underlying ASDs, here we present the results of genome-wide association studies on a cohort of 780 families (3,101 subjects) with affected children, and a second cohort of 1,204 affected subjects and 6,491 control subjects, all of whom were of European ancestry. Six single nucleotide polymorphisms between cadherin 10 (CDH10) and cadherin 9 (CDH9)—two genes encoding neuronal cell-adhesion molecules—revealed strong association signals, with the most significant SNP being rs4307059 (P = 3.4 × 10−8, odds ratio = 1.19). These signals were replicated in two independent cohorts, with combined P values ranging from 7.4 × 10−8 to 2.1 × 10−10. Our results implicate neuronal cell-adhesion molecules in the pathogenesis of ASDs, and represent, to our knowledge, the first demonstration of genome-wide significant association of common variants with susceptibility to ASDs.
Siblings of probands with autism spectrum disorders are at higher risk for developing the broad autism phenotype (BAP). We compared the linguistic abilities (i.e., pragmatic language, school achievements, and underling reading processes) of 35 school-age siblings of children with autism (SIBS-A) to those of 42 siblings of children with typical development. Results indicated lower pragmatic abilities in a subgroup of SIBS-A identified with BAP related difficulties (SIBS-A-BAP) whereas school achievements and reading processes were intact. Furthermore, among SIBS-A-BAP, significant negative correlations emerged between the severity scores on the Autism Diagnostic Observation Schedule and full and verbal IQ scores. These results are discussed in the context of the developmental trajectories of SIBS-A and in relation to the BAP.
Autism; Siblings; Broad autism phenotype; Language; Pragmatics; Learning difficulties
To examine prospectively the emergence of behavioral signs of autism in the first years of life in infants at low and high risk for autism.
A prospective longitudinal design was used to compare 25 infants later diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder (ASD) with 25 gender-matched low-risk children later determined to have typical development. Participants were evaluated at 6, 12, 18, 24, and 36 months of age. Frequencies of gaze to faces, social smiles, and directed vocalizations were coded from video and rated by examiners.
The frequency of gaze to faces, shared smiles, and vocalizations to others were highly comparable between groups at 6 months of age, but significantly declining trajectories over time were apparent in the group later diagnosed with ASD. Group differences were significant by 12 months of age on most variables. Although repeated evaluation documented loss of skills in most infants with ASD, most parents did not report a regression in their child’s development.
These results suggest that behavioral signs of autism are not present at birth, as once suggested by Kanner, but emerge over time through a process of diminishment of key social communication behaviors. More children may present with a regressive course than previously thought, but parent report methods do not capture this phenomenon well. Implications for onset classification systems and clinical screening are also discussed.
Autism; Onset; Infancy; Regression